Letter from Bethlehem

The Bethlehemites once again try to catch up with daily life. People shake hands with acquaintances whom they under different circumstances would barely greet. All people say that they are, well, tired. Some people in the street walk like zombies: shoulders down, eyes focused to eternity. Briefly after the lifting of the curfew, Jara mindlessly runs across the street, as if she had all but forgotten about the cars. She is almost hit by one. Mary and I panick more than during the whole period of the occupation.

There is a run on the banks for cash. The prices are increasing due to the scarcity of products and Israel’s present steep inflation. Jamal, Mary’s uncle who is the mayor’s secretary, says that the soldiers robbed some 20.000 shekel cash and also cheques at the municipality, as well as an expensive decorative sword. A chocolate box was emptied, with the note in Hebrew: ‘Thank you for your hospitality.’ Another relative, the head of the engineering bureau, tells in exasperation that all the municipality land maps have been taken away. They now have to rely upon copies the landowners themselves have in order to prove to whom which land belongs. And when they don’t have a copy? ‘Then we face difficulties.’ It goes without saying that all computers have also been simply taken away, as in the other occupied cities, in order for the Israelis to detect the ‘infrastructure of Palestinian terror.’ The administrators and engineers must start their jobs from scratch.

The talk of the day is that the Israelis are likely to come back, as in Jenin, not for a long period but for one day or so. Many people on their wanted lists are still in Bethlehem; and many weapons are still buried under the ground. Even the day is mentioned when they are supposed to return: next Tuesday. Why, next Tuesday? ‘After so many days closed up at home, people talk a lot,’ a colleague from an alternative tourism agency remarks, ‘and remember that it was no coincidence that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem – in no other place people would talk so much that a son of town becomes known throughout the world!’

At least, talking is a way of coping. An incredible amount of stories are exchanged these days about what happened in the various houses during the curfew. My Arabic teacher says that during the curfew she each day watched morning recipe programs broadcasted by several Arab stations available from the dish. She wrote the recipes down - she now has a handwritten recipe book – and each day, to her husband’s great joy, she made another special dish or cake, filling her time and their stomachs. One of our neighbours, whose father runs a medical lab, says that after a few weeks one woman after the other came to check whether she was pregnant. ‘For sure,’ she comments, ‘when closed up, some people start hating, others start loving.’

But many youth did simply not know what to do. The problem, a social worker at a private school says, is that Palestinian youth are just not used to read and write at home. They only do sch things when imposed. During the curfew, many of the students watched TV until deep in the night and got up at twelve next day. Now, they lack any motivation to go back to school. One very young pupil, half-seriously, told his mother: ‘I don’t need to go to school, I am sure that all teachers are dead.’ (Another child, hearing this, ruefully commented: ‘Well, I don’t wish all of them dead.’)


At St Joseph, a school diary project had an impact: Many of the 11th graders continued their diary writing during the curfew. Some stopped because they were afraid that the soldiers might take the English language diaries as evidence against the family. In a country with a long history of occupations, people have an inborn reluctance to write things down. So Suzy was all the more pleased to have collected over forty computer diskettes with diaries. ‘Ya’ tik al’Aafye,’ a teacher commented dryly. [May God bless your health, an expression said to somebody who is at work].

One tawjihi [matriculation] student, Nadine, told Suzy that her head had burst with things she wanted to write down, but that she was unable to do so. Her family was contained into one room in her own house; the soldiers occupied the other parts. The family had to ask for permission when they wanted to leave the room, for instance, to go to the toilet. During the opening hours, only one person at a time was allowed to leave the house. At one point Nadine, infuriated, approached a soldier, asking him whether he knew the diary of Anne Frank. ‘Yes, of course, do you want to read it?’ ‘No, I want you to read it!’ The soldier shrugged his shoulders, indifferently. Last year, St Joseph’s students studied the Anne Frank diary and identified parallels between their own imprisonment experiences and Anne Frank’s underground stay in the Amsterdam grachtenhuis.

The teachers at the school are now employing the diary project as a way of coping with the traumas students experienced. So many students fall into a steep abyss of meaninglessness: What is the purpose of study and school, when you cannot enjoy life, when there is no future, no normal university study, no traveling possibility, no work to be found in an economy that is in collapse? You’d rather be dead, and you’d rather take your enemies with you. Others repress their feelings and want simply not to talk about what happened, they heard too much already, they want to avoid the news, too; it is boring anyway. That is the worst response, teachers comment, piling up pressures and emotions to become an implosion. Some students feel guilty that they were not so much exposed to violence and deprivation as those living around the Church. ‘Mama, I don’t want to eat, I cannot get this through my throat when others are hungry.’ Still others jump up at the sound of a school bell or a slamming door; they think that soldiers enter the building. In fact, Jara lately heard a truck outside and asked Mary whether it was a tank.

The Israeli army and the violence may have left the city (although we all the time hear about brief incursions into the Bethlehem district, like in Karkafeh or Dheisha; information which I cannot check), they are still in people’s minds. One student followed her father’s habit of shooting birds and opened the bloody intestines of a bird in front of people. She apparently became fascinated by the blood shown on local TV.

Some students started sleep walking, and of course many have nightmares, for instance about house searches, probably the most dreadful experience they were exposed to. The other day Mary told me that she herself dreamt about a house search, and also, strangely enough, about tanks flying over the house. ‘At least that’s better than on the roads. Let them go to heaven, or hell.’ Jara said that she dreamt being a good witch faced by a bad one who wanted to enter her house. She and papa and her little brother refused entry to the bad witch, then she jumped into the air and out of the air she shot dead the intruder. At the moment she is completely absorbed by fairy tales in which a wolf or fox threatens a home. As I cannot escape my inborn sober convictions (which seem to lose relevance every day), I am happy that her stories provide peaceful solutions: The fox is frightened off, the wolf safely taken away to a distant forest.


All youth in Palestine are struggling to give meaning to the fact that they are exposed to intruders against which the adults cannot protect them. Another kindergarten student, also four years, was asked whom she thought stayed in the Zeppelin - the Israeli videotaping balloon that used to hang over the Church during the siege. ‘Shalon,’ the child said – she couldn’t pronounce the ‘r’ well.

Suzy says that the teaching challenge now is to find ways for students to express their anxieties. One good way is joking (‘What is the difference between Arafat and Sharon after Arafat’s siege in Ramallah? Forty kilos.’) She asked the students to write ‘a letter to an Israeli soldier’ or to comment upon a drawing of a big fish eating a smaller fish eating an even smaller fish. The big fish thinks the world is OK, the smaller fish thinks the world partly OK and partly at fault, and the smallest fish thinks the world a disaster. A prompt which no doubt catches the students’ present mood. One reason why the students feel that the current situation is so meaningless is that, without exception, the people feel unhappy about the compromise that led to the deportation of the militants – the small fish - to Gaza and Cyprus. As if the struggle around the church, the curfew and the sacrifices, were for nothing. Fuad says that during a youth meeting at the institute, the conclusion was that the solution can only come from God.


The schools now try to squeeze their semester curriculum into the very few weeks left. At the government schools, the visual arts and sports fall victim to the need to compensate for the lost hours in the important exam subjects. At St Joseph they at least keep the sports, so essential to get out the tension. The private schools, like the government schools, have also cancelled any real festivity after the exams. The mood of the public does not allow that. At the Freres’ there will be only ‘a reception with lemonade and tabouleh’ [a delicious salad cut very small]. My Arabic teacher does not agree: ‘After eighteen years of school, they have to leave just like that?’


Unavoidably, a great many people talk about emigrating. As a colleague says: ‘During Bethlehem 2000 there was a little hope. Then things only deteriorated. Why should we refuse living a normal life somewhere else? With the Likud now denying a Palestinian state, we have many more years of Intifada ahead of us.’ I can’t find an answer.


Mary plays with Tamer on her lap. By fingering his chin, she tries to elicit a laugh. Soon we will go, like other new parents are used to do here, to the Church of Nativity to lay down Tamer on the Star which symbolizes the place where Jesus was born, and which for some time was a refuge for the militants. There we’ll take a photo of him, an icon for a better future.

Mary sighs a lot these days. I don’t sigh, but deep down inside there is a small ball in which all sadness and anger is locked up. It should rather not be unlocked but cannot be repressed or forgotten either.